Film Club / but Sad to Say, Folks, Even They Are Fair Game for the Zombies

AlienTrain to Busan
Directed by Yeon Sang-ho

 

 

 

 
 

My biggest fear is that our precious little Film Club here turns into an Empire magazine kinda thing. No offence to Empire magazine – like it obviously does what it does really well (and it’s been a very long time since I’ve even bothered to read it). But it basically sees movies through the same kinda lens as a teenage boy. It’s all superheroes doing cool stuff. Action movies with lots of explosions. And the idea that the best directors of all time are Spielberg, Lucas and Nolan. And yeah ok it’s true that there are certain parts of my viewpoint that share an affinity with that kinda thing. I do like science-fiction movies. I do like horror movies. And yeah as I’m sure I’ve remarked upon before I especially have a soft spot for zombie movies. 

Technically speaking – since we’ve come out of Film Club Lockdown last year this is now the third zombie movie we’ve done (Prince of Darkness kinda counts right?) and so there’s kinda a part of me that’s shaking it’s head and saying oh come on: this is all a bit too geeky, it’s all too male, it’s all too much kinda Empire magazine. You know? 

Films can do anything. They can tell any kind of story. And it’s just because of the pressures of the patriarchy and white supremacy and whatever that means that there’s this overemphasis on a certain kind of Empire magazine kinda movie that leaves out all of this other better, more interesting, more insightful stuff elsewhere. 
But you know what – I’m not quite sure that that’s true anymore. 

Other things I think I’ve probably said before – I think most plays are kinda boring and kinda samey. Like obviously there’s good ones here and there. But most plays seem to share a commonality. A bunch of people trapped in a certain space. Lots of things not said. Shouted accusations. Pauses full of meaning. Plenty of emotional sparks. And then a big climatic speech where someone finally unbuttons themselves and says something that they’ve been waiting to say all along in the most dramatic way possible. I mean like yeah obvious – because you know – it’s a play. And those are the kind of things you can do when you’re given a set up that’s basically just “people standing around on a stage” you know? It’s like giving some a bunch of timber and a hammer and some nails. It’s not really too surprising when they build a wooden shack you know? 

Which is partly why I’m more drawn to films. There’s more materials. You can go further and wider. You aren’t as limited by the types of stories you can tell. Or to put it another way – you can turn pretty much any play into a film and not really lose all that much (whether or not it would be a good film is another question of course). But there’s not that many films you can turn into a play without losing lots of important information. 

(And what is a story apart from information and how that information is revealed?) 

But even then – I’m not sure that all films are equal. In fact most of them are pretty threadbare and definitely not worth three weeks examination in terms of understanding what makes them tick (sorry). I mean come on: most of them operate as if they’re slightly advanced plays – using the nearly infinite possibilities of things you can do with a camera just to have a few more fancy locations but most of them are still handcuffed to old-fashioned theatrical rules of drama – which mostly means that it’s lots of talking and everything major is revealed through language / what people say. Which mostly just seems like a waste of potential. 

Which I guess is what puts me into the same sort of orbit as the Empire magazine types because even tho it seems like we’re both into movies in different sorts of ways it does seem as if there’s a commonality there in that we both believe that cinema should be… well cinematic. 

Or to put it another way – when I meet someone and ask them what movies they like and they say that they don’t really like action movies I’m always tempted to say that oh well in that case I guess you’re not really into movies at all huh? An action movie after all is just the capture of movement in the biggest way possible. So it’s a little like saying that you don’t like cars that go too fast or water that gets too wet. 

The folks who don’t really like action movies will often point towards foreign films as being intellectually superior (“Oh I’m not really into Hollywood type of stuff you know”) but the big dirty secret that no one really wants to say at the risk of making themselves sound like a unsophisticated moron is that most foreign films are boring as hell and not worth the time it takes to watch them. Because the other dirty secret is that if you want to make a film that’s worth watching / that’s doing interesting things cinematically then you need a budget and an imagination. Otherwise all you’ve got is – people talking about things. Which is just a play on the big screen. A showcase for actors to emote and not much more much. 

I mean – I could be wrong but I’m pretty sure that at this point I’ve probably seen more foreign films than most people (working in a Library means that you get to borrow the DVDs for free) and I’ve got to say that even tho it’s pretty stupid to define a whole genre of movies just by the fact that the people in them aren’t talking in English there are still some noticable family resemblances most notably – most of them are pretty damn boring and tedious. Like totally – I can’t even get to the end of this without falling asleep kinda thing. (And yeah yeah of course there are so amazing exceptions out there – but those are mostly the examples that prove the rule). 

Honestly at this point in my life I think it’s more entertaining and insightful watching a mid-tier crappy action movie (Purest Ideology!) than a beloved piece of foreign art house whatever. I mean at least in the action movie you get to see things move

All of which I guess finally brings us to Train to Busan. Which just goes to confirm my suspicions that as soon as you give filmmakers enough money they’re going to want to make action movies too. Which you know – is obviously a good thing. Especially when they’re as smart and as graceful and as emotionally affecting as this. I mean yeah I do complain about things a lot I know. But hopefully that means that when I say that a movie is pretty much perfect that means that it means something you know? (Hopefully). 

But also yeah – zombies and stuff. 

 

The thing that zombie movies recognise is that humans are fucking terrifying. Sure it would be just as bad to have a horde of cats or birds or fish after you, but without anthropomorphising them you don’t get the same range of emissions as you do from a human zombie. And what is more terrifying? Is it the frenzied hunger of the zombies of Train to Busan, or the murderous glee in Crossed, or the lumbering indifference in the Day of the Dead? Why you would ideally not want to be chased by a zombie, there is something more disturbing about the dead just looking at you curiously, waiting for you to catch up, or haunting you like a bad breakup. 

Zombie lore is also odd. Generally they seems to be cannibals for erm reasons. Sure it helps to move the plot on, but then also this has the added advantage of passing on the zombie “virus”. From a horror movie point of view a relentless and multiplying army does feel like something that would scare people. But then the zombies are mindless but also seem to be very persistent and able to discern various logical challenges, so are they more like animals? It seems inconsistent until you realise that for all intents zombies are a stand in for the poor/foreigners/young people etc which is problematic, especially when another trope of zombie movies is that it’s completely legitimate to kill them as violently and indiscriminately as possible as long as you don’t know them, and even then, sometimes you just have to sacrifice a close relative for the sake of public health. Why did you choose this movie again Joel? Too damn soon!

As I have mentioned before I am more of a fan of necromancers than just shambling undead. I like the idea that there is a goth wizard making the dead dance like puppets. The problem with being a necromancer wizard is that once you have defeated death you can’t really be human in  a meaningful sense which is perhaps why they have never really taken off as fictional characters. The most famous is Sauron and he only gets one line in 19.9 hours of movies. Similarly the Night King in Game of Thrones just showed up for the epilogues and again not overly chatty, but at least he raised a badass zombie dragon. While looking up famous necromancers I found that: Shuri’s training in the Djalia also imbued her with super-speed and the ability to temporarily reanimate Wakandan corpses!

So while we await Black Panther 3: Undead Avengers I will have to fit some time in to rewatch Train to Busan which I have not seen recently. 

 

 

So Zombies, eh? I’ve got questions about this movie.

Okay, here goes. I’m not quite sure what is the moral of this movie. Phrased differently; I don’t know what the director is trying to say about zombies/society/Korea/Hedge Fund Managers/individuals etc. Here’s my thinking.

I’ve heard it said that Zombies are a euphemism for consumerism. The rabid nature in which they always hunger for brains/flesh/necks, even if it leads to their undoing, is a parallel for the paradoxical way in which society/capitalism sets up incentives for us to consume more and more while it leads to our own financial/social and environmental undoing. So then, if we’re all born into this zombie system and we one day come to see the zombie for what it is, can anyone escape it? And if so then who can escape it? Well, I think the creators of Train to Busan attempt to answer that.

Train to Busan is a good zombie movie. It’s a nice, straightforward chamber piece** of a movie set mostly on a train, where the train goes from point A to point B – until they have to get on another train to actually get them to point B cuz the first train comes to the end of it’s tracks. The protagonist is an ass. His daughter – who’s the sweetest thing since marmalade – can’t sing to save her life… even though her singing DOES end up saving her life. And the ancillary characters in the movie reach across the spectrum from Noble to pure evil incarnate. And it’s great, because everyone has clear motivations for why they do what they do when they do.

First off, a lot of people get killed. Killed?Eaten?Turned?… I think I’ll stick with “Turned”. So, good people get Turned. Bad people get Turned. Horny teenagers get Turned. Elderly sisters get Turned. The ex-wife gets Turned (offscreen, we believe). It’s all a damn shame, really. And what’s interesting, in a kinda meta way, is the indiscriminate way in which the film makers will seemingly allow anyone and everyone to turn. Seemingly. Because I don’t think everyone qualifies. So what follows is me doing you a favour and breaking down the types of characters you’ll encounter in this movie.

The Good. I say “good”, but I actually mean like a “normal”. An average Joe. An everyman. As this is a zombie movie, it wouldn’t be a good zombie movie if some good people didn’t get turned. And a lot of the good extras – I mean people – get turned. But you already knew that, right? ’nuff said!

The Bad. I’m being slightly facetious when I say that there are evil people in this movie, even the zombies can’t really be called “evil”, they’re just a force/perversion of nature, right? But even with that in mind, we’re certainly shown selfish people, like our protagonist. Some a lot more so than others. Now, I think the movie does a grand job of showing how heinous some folk can inevitably become in the face of the inexorable walking-dead running at them. But, in that same vein, it also shows characters displaying feats of great bravery and heroism in the face of the above. So the movie still leaves enough mental slack for the viewer to distinguish between a character making a) an unpleasant choice and, b) a downright morally wrong one.

The Noble. So, there’s one character in this movie who is without doubt a goddamn knight in shining armour. An Angel in waiting. A Hodor at the door. He’s an implacable samurai who, at one point, quite literally stands between chaos and the remaining passengers of the train. And you know damn well who I’m talking about, folks. I’m talking, of course, of the scared Homeless man.

So the scared Homeless Man, and the other Paragon of Virtue in this movie, Sang Hwa (I don’t think he’s homeless, so let’s just call him “husband of pregnant lady and all around stand-up guy”), represent a type of character in this movie who I’d designate, the virtuous, or the Noble. They may be rough around the edges, they may be homeless, they may even just be foul-mouthed, but they do the right thing cuz it’s the right thing to do, dammit. And thankfully, even our ass of a protagonist finds himself elevated to some such similar status by the end of the movie. He goes beyond himself. He performs a selfless deed. Which is great, because these are the qualities that really resonate with you. These types of characters are the ones for whom we’re rooting when the odds are clearly stacked against them. But sad to say, folks, even they are fair game for the zombies.

So to summarize all of the above; if you’re a regular joe/a good guy, you can get Turned. If you’re a bad guy, (oh you better believe) you’ll get Turned! If you’re someone virtuous/noble or even someone who becomes such later on in the movie… you still qualify for the “Turned” status effect. So then, my question is; according to the unspoken rules/morality system of this movie who could possibly be saved?

The innocent. There it is. The only survivors at the end are the protagonist’s daughter and Pregnant lady. You may recall her as the wife of “husband of pregnant lady and all around stand-up guy”. So is the director saying that the only ones allowed to survive this disaster are the Innocents? i.e. those entirely without sin/fault of any kind i.e. kids? – Obviously unborn kids count as well, btw. As does the placental matter that houses them. As does the mother carrying the aforementioned.

So I’d be curious to see what kind of reading others made of this movie, but for the moment I think the moral of this movie is something like this; In the event of a zombie outbreak the best possible thing is for you to be a child, or to be pregnant. The next best thing is for you to be a Knight-errant (or a Homeless Man). The next best thing is for you to be an ass who stops being an ass later on. And the absolute worst thing for you to be is an Ex-wife, cuz you won’t even be allowed an onscreen death.

P.S. Honourable shout-outs go to Train Drivers. They should also be in that “Noble” category. Truly, theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

Increasingly aware that “What’s the metaphor?” is the only question that animates my engagement with films and media generally — below is my attempt at an answer for Train to Busan (and why it’s unsatisfying). Less granular and probs more inaccurate than Fred’s version.

The protagonist is contrasted on the one hand with a burly expectant dad who understands that fatherhood is about sacrifice, and on the other with a cowardly small businessman who gets increasingly comfortable with throwing others to the zombies in order to save his own skin. The film keeps coming back to this battle between self-interest and selflessness. At one point, it suggests that there may be a generational aspect to this divide – an older, more community-minded cohort who might still remember the Korean War, and a newer, more individualistic breed of Korean out to work hard, make money and leave others in the dust. It is heavily implied that the zombies are only the next step in that (d)evolution.

But if parenting is about sacrifice, the film places an awful lot of the burden on preserving a happy family on the men. All the female characters in the film are there to be put in peril and subsequently saved by the male characters – even the teenage girl, who doesn’t have the excuse of being too young, too old, or pregnant, to fight. The women also don’t really have arcs – they either already accept that survival requires selflessness, or are otherwise mindless paranoiacs whipped up into a frenzy by the villain. The only female character who makes a choice in the film chooses suicide in disgust at the moral compromises of her fellow passengers. She kills herself in order to kill others. Only the men kill themselves to preserve their families. Which makes me wonder how far the critique of absent fathers working long hours to support their kids goes.

At one point the burly expectant father boasts that he ‘made’ the baby growing inside his partner, erasing her role in the process. It’s a cute moment, but the joke becomes less funny the more the film valorises his conduct.

Right. 

(Wraps arms with tape) 

Let’s do this. 

As a special treat for myself I recently brought myself two (!) books of Ursula K Le Guin non-fiction. And hey – what do you know? They’re pretty damn good. And basically underlines my thought that the only important quality in a writer is whether or not they can think good. If you can you should try to read as much of their stuff as you can. And if they can’t you should throw all of their books on the purifying fire and avoid their thoughts when you encounter them online. It’ll just pollute your brain. 

In one of her essays Le Guin talks about how most reviews and analyses of her book The Dispossessed (read it now if you haven’t already) often fall wide of the mark because they don’t seem to understand that it’s a novel. Instead they treat it as a book of political theory or a treatise showing you how the world should really be run or whatever. And yeah you know – there’s obviously lots of stuff in there that can be used to make political points and show you important ideas about how we think about ourselves and other people but at the end of the day I think it’s an important point – stories have their own pressures and forces and priorities. And you know – if a writer has to make a choice between doing something cool or sticking to their metaphor or whatever then if they’re a good writer then: they’ll do something cool. Because maybe that’s just what the story demands. 

Obviously this means that I’m not quite as taken with Ilia’s “what is the metaphor?” stance and why my no-doubt-disappointing answer to Fred’s question “what’s the moral?” is – there is no moral. What do you think this is – a Marvel movie? 

Yeah I mean of course there’s lots of very on-the-nose stuff in there about Capitalism and the way that it’s only by learning to be selfless and putting someone else’s well being above our own can we be fully human. But the film never really belabours that idea all that much. I mean yeah there’s the Cowardly Small Businessman who keeps flinging people in front of the zombies like a guy throwing bread to the ducks but it never really gets that deep into it. You can just tell that he’s a dick and that obviously everyone would have a lot more luck if they had all stuck together instead of tearing themselves apart (hmmm – maybe there’s a lesson there?). But you’d get the same result if it was just a 5 minute movie. ( Cowardly Small Businessman = bad).

And you know although it looks like a complete arc Evil Selfish Fund Manager never really learns all that much. Like yeah obviously he messes up at the start with the double-Wiiing which obviously means he’s in the nominations for Worst Dad of the Year Award but that just shows he’s thoughtless. Yeah ok at the end he literally sacrifices himself so that his daughter (and some stranger he’s just met could live) but hell – dude got bit by a zombie. He’s dead already. I mean yeah it’s a heroic act and damn it I even get a few emotions when it happens but erm – isn’t this kinda the thing that most people would do? You were dying anyway and you decided to kill yourself a few seconds early so that your kid would be safe? Chris Rock voice: what do you want? A cookie? 

All of this isn’t to say that I think the movie is therefore somehow lesser or badly written. I mean shoot – hand on heart Train to Busan is probably one of my favourite movies of all time (although some people tell me I have strange taste in movies lol). But the point is – while it can be fun to track to see whether the metaphor scans through the whole movie or if the thematic underpinings are successfully resolved in the third act it’s a perspective that’s kinda the same as meeting someone and feeling that you know them because you’ve accurately deduced that they mainly consist of oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphor (yeah ok I had to google that). Or to put it another way – a movie is more than just it’s metaphors. And to see the whole thing you need to realise that most of the time the reason it does one thing and not the other is because that’s just kinda what the story demands – you know? 

And yeah at the risk of getting political – I can’t help but notice that there’s a political aspect to this way of seeing things too. I mean – I’ve written lots in a lot of places about how I disagree with the idea that we should see individuals are being representatives of their group (be it race, gender, sexuality etc etc) and yeah I think that this applies to both fiction and the real world. Like I just don’t see the actions of whatever character acting as a barometer for anything wider than themselves. Yeah the Homeless Guy is pretty Nobel in this movie but I don’t think that means that the movie is saying all homeless people are nobel. Yeah Husband of Pregnant Lady is a bit dickish at points but I don’t think that means that the movie is saying all husbands of pregnant ladies are dicks. Yeah etc etc etc I mean everyone is a character and they all make their own choices and do their own things and to try to generalise from that towards something larger just feels like… a mistake to me. A simplistic way of thinking that has no place in the 21st Century (although of course ironically – it’s everywhere we look).  

I mean earlier I poo-pooed the idea of a moral to this movie – but maybe if there’s any lesson here it’s the idea that we want to survive the horrors of Capitalism a zombie apocalypse then we need to band together and learn to support one another and help each other. Not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because it’s the only way we’re going to survive. 

Going back to my opening comments about how sci-fi movies are basically better at being movies than something more realistic (and boring) I found this excellent Ursula K Le Guin quote:

(She’s talking about Realism in books – but it’s basically the same thing)

“Realism is for lazy-minded, semi-educated people whose atrophied imagination allows them to appreciate only the most limited and convention subject matter. Re-Fi is a repetitive genre written by unimaginative hacks who rely on mere mimesis. If they had any self-respect they’d be writing memoir, but they’re too lazy to fact-check. Of course I never read Re-Fi. But the kids keep bringing home these garish realistic novels and talking about them, so I know that it’s an incredibly narrow genre, completely centered on one species, full of worn-out cliches and predictable situations–the quest for the father, mother-bashing, obsessive male lust, dysfunctional suburban families, etc., etc. All it’s good for is being made into mass-market movies. Given its old-fashioned means and limited subject matter, realism is quite incapable of describing the complexity of contemporary experience.”

Ooof! Sick burn

She’s right tho. Especially the line about “atrophied imagination.” And I fear there’s a vicious circle at work here. Namely it’s only by exposing yourself to movies and art that pushes the limits of storytelling and shows you things beyond the mere confines of “reality” that your understanding of the world can grow and take in more things. But until you realise the benefit of that – you’re not going to expose yourself to it. And will instead comfort yourself with art that’s a lot more narrow and safe and boring. 

There was another point I was going to make before about how there’s no such thing as a bad idea for a movie which kinda relates to this. Mostly that it stems from the same place of atrophied imagination as the people who feel that Realism is more serious and sophisticated and adult. And you know Train to Busan is a really nice example of this… 

I’m sure I’m not the only one that when he first heard of the idea of Train to Busan did an eyeroll and thought it sounded stupid. 

“Zombies on a Train”? Really

(Although I think maybe my skepticism comes from a different place than most people. After all I’m a big zombie film fan LOL. So like I didn’t think that the idea sounded stupid because of the subject matter so much but more because I couldn’t really see how you make a whole film out of an idea about something that seemed like it would only be about two or three scenes at most. I remember thinking is the whole movie just going to be people hiding under their seats and making sure that they don’t open the door connecting the carriages? That’s so dumb. I mean yeah ok sure I’ll watch it. But only just to see just how silly it is… Ha! And of course by the end I’m practically crying with my heart busted into a million pieces realising that not only is the notion of Zombies on a Train a perfect demonstration of the dead-end nature of the evils of Capitalism but also a complete encapsulation of the notion of life itself (no matter what – you keep pressing forward and do whatever it takes to make sure that the next generation is ok etc etc etc)). 

But the point is – no idea is stupid really. It all depends on how it’s done and how it’s wielded. And well yeah the best stuff is always going to be the stuff that seems strange and weird – because that’s the stuff that can show you things you’ve never even thought of before. 

Obviously. 

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